I’ll never forget the day I met Emily, because that’s the day my world began to change. Perhaps I should say it’s the day the world began to change for all of us who lived near that little street corner in New York City, tucked away between Central Park and the Hudson River. It was the only quiet part of town I passed every morning when I rode from my apartment to school. On the ground level of a rickety old building was a café that had been for rent for three years. It was run-down and abandoned. Sometimes, when I had a few spare moments, I would stop in front of the window and try to see in through the ads and handbills that were plastered all over the windows. All I ever got for my effort was a dirty face. The “To Rent” sign was faded so much you had to look hard to even know it was there. The awning above the street stretched out over the sidewalk, but it was so old the original color was impossible to discern and it was so full of holes that it offered no shelter during even the mildest rain shower, as I knew from experience. The paint on the door was chipped and every so often the window in it was broken in by a rock and then repaired in the night. That was just the outside – the inside must have been ten times worse from however many years of abandonment.
But one autumn morning when I biked past, the paper that had covered the windows had been torn down and the glass was clean.
I looked behind me and took a mental note of it, but had no time to stop and stare. In the blur of classes, rehearsals, studying, and practice that made up the rest of my day, I forgot all about the change. It wasn’t until I rode home that evening, mind and body exhausted, that I remembered. I skidded to a stop in front of the door and peered in through the little window. Inside, a small woman was on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor. Beside her, a young girl knelt, holding a dirty rag and copying the woman’s every move. I moved up toward the window, but my bike tire caught on a rock and it clattered to the ground, me with it.
I stood and dusted myself off only to find the little girl looking out the window, pointing and giggling, her large brown eyes scrunching up as she laughed. The woman turned and saw me and I nodded to her, then bent to pick up my bike and the books that had fallen out of my satchel. Just as I was climbing back on my bike, the door opened.
“Who are you?” a little voice asked.
I turned to see the girl peeking out, the woman standing behind her.
“I’m Walter – Walter Eliot. I – I hope you don’t mind – I saw this place was different this morning when I rode by and I stopped for a closer look.”
The woman shook her head. “I don’t mind. I’m glad people notice – we’re hoping to start a café.”
“I’ll spread the word when I can,” I said. “And hopefully find time somewhere to stop by regularly myself.”
“Thank you!” The woman said. “By the way, I’m Emily, and this is –”
“Emanuela Marie Jackson,” the girl piped up. “She’s my mama.”
“Well, Emily and Emanuela Marie Jackson, it was a pleasure to meet you, and I look forward to seeing you again soon – but I really must get home now – I have so much to do before classes tomorrow.”
“’Bye, Walter!” Emanuela called as I rode away, and I heard Emily laughing. I thought about them as I turned the corner and rode to the end of the block, then parked my bike and walked up three flights of stairs to my one-room apartment.
The two didn’t look anything alike. Emily was petite, with chin-length straight, blonde hair. Her skin was as fair as her hair, and her eyes were bluer than anything I had ever seen before. On the other hand, Emanuela had not only a Spanish name, but a Spanish complexion to match it, with brown curls and pale brown skin.
I shook my head. They’re a mystery I’ll have to figure out another time, I thought, then turned my attention to music history, harmony, and composing until I fell asleep at my desk.
Every evening after that, Emanuela was always watching at the window at six-thirty, waiting for me to ride by. Most days I couldn’t stop to talk, but would still wave as I rode by, always noting the progress Emily had made in fixing up the place. The windows were now sparkling clean, the door had a fresh coat of paint, and the inside was also getting a makeover. Sometimes when I had a few extra minutes and stopped to talk, Emily would offer me a muffin, pastry, or cup of tea. They were always delicious, but she would never let me pay her for them. Emanuela demanded I call her “Ema,” and always asked to be tickled. I could never stay long, but those few minutes always did me good in my long days of studying and practicing. School was busy and with a few exceptions, neither I nor anyone else had time to relax in the midst of classes and rehearsals. I had a few friends but we didn’t have a lot of time to hang out and talk, even on weekends. Most of the time I didn’t mind, since I liked being by myself. But here and there were people I wanted to know more – like the cellist I’d accompanied last month, the man getting his master’s in composition, the other choir accompanist… and Clara, the pretty flautist in my music history class.
As Autumn wore on, the awning was replaced. With it came a new sign outside and tables and chairs inside. And then one evening Emily handed me flyers to put up around town as I rode to school, announcing the presence of Javi’s Café.
“No grand opening?” I asked, but there were more questions than that in the back of my mind. Who was Javi? Was he the reason for Ema’s complexion?
Emily shook her head. “It’s only Ema and me. We can’t make enough to have a grand opening. But we still wanted to spread the word.”
“I’ll most certainly do that for you,” I said.
A week later, the sign in the window was flipped over and at last said “Open.” I used every spare moment that day to get ahead on homework so that I could stop in for longer than a few minutes that night, and the work paid off.
Ema was there to greet me as usual, and Emily smiled as I stepped inside.
“I can stay a bit longer tonight,” I said. “And next week is Thanksgiving break, so I can stay for even longer then.”
“Yay!” Ema cried.
I pulled out my wallet. “But now that you’re open for business, you’ll have to let me be a paying customer.”
“I guess I’ll have to, Mr. Eliot,” Emily said, laughing. “What can I get you tonight?”
“Those mini quiches look fantastic. I’ll take one of those and a cup of tea, please.”
I looked up at one of Emily’s chalkboard signs, noting the price and pulling the money out of my wallet. “How was business today?”
“Slow.” Emily shrugged. “But it was the first day, so I wasn’t expecting much.”
I searched her face. “But you were hoping for more than you had today.”
She bent to pick up the quiche, hiding her face. “Yes, we were.”
“I’ll remind folks at school tomorrow, and anyone I see on the street.” Any opportunity to talk to Clara, I thought. And others, I added quickly.
“Thank you, Walter. You’re helping so much.”
I sat down with my quiche and tea, looking out on the quiet street. “How’d you pick this place?” I asked.
Emily shrugged again. “Only place we could afford, I guess. It had always been our dream to start a café in New York City.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Our? Your and Ema’s?”
Emily’s face softened. “No,” she said, her eyes looking far away. “Mine and Javi’s.”
“That’s for some other time.” Her hands were playing with something, and for the first time I noticed she wore a ring on her left hand.
I nodded, not wanting to push Emily, but my curiosity was piqued.
“But I will tell you,” she said. “It was our dream not just to have a café for food, but to make friends. New York is so disjointed and we – I – didn’t have support when…” She shook her head. “I just want to get to know every one of our customers. I want to be there for people when they need it.”
I smiled. “I’ll join you in that endeavor, when I have the time. School keeps me so busy; I don’t like it. Well, I like my studies and the music but there’s just no time for anything else.”
“You’ll pull through,” Emily said. “Let us know if we can help.”
“I will.” I stood and picked up my bag. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Ema ran to me and clung to my leg, looking up at me with her big brown eyes. “You’re leaving already?”
I picked Ema up and looked at her eye-to-eye. “I have to study tonight.”
“Can’t you study here?”
I smiled. “Maybe sometime. Not today.”
“What do you do when you’re not here?”
“I listen to the voices in my head,” I said, running my finger down her nose. “But not the way most people do. I write music.”
“Will you play it for me sometime?”
“Yes, I will.”
“Yes, Emanuela Marie Jackson, I promise.”
New story idea! I'm not sure exactly where this is going, but I'll try to keep up with it enough to post a bit on Apricotpie every month. Most of my writing lately has been more along the lines of articles and essays for my blog, but I did have a new story idea the other day.